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Uh huh her
Polly Jean Harveyís back in black

Listening to mainstream tastemaker radio stations, you might think alternative rock is in bloom again. Thatís either because our pop-art culture is moving so fast that stylistic recycling takes place every five to seven years, instead of every decade, or because the stuff was damn good ó the last big burp of sonically creative and emotionally relevant music from the crumbling major labels.

Maybe there are some other reasons. Laziness. Voodoo . . . But alongside interesting new bands like the Fire Theft, Dashboard Confessional, and Jet, respected veterans of the original alterna-rock era are also returning. And that raises some prickly questions. Will the Cure be more than a nostalgia act, or were reports of their somewhat sleepy early May performance at Californiaís Coachella Festival a harbinger of whatís to come when they release a new album later this month and mount a comeback tour? What about the reunited Pixies? Will they ever schedule a date in their old home town, or will they continue to thumb their noses at Boston while planning more concerts in Slovenia and at the Grand Ole Opry? And Morrissey? Isnít he crankier than ever?

There is, however, one heroine of alternative rockís salad days who never went away and continues to breathe artistic fire: Polly Jean Harvey. Since her 1992 debut, Dry (Too Pure), with her band PJ Harvey, she has grown consistently as a songwriter, musician, and conceptualist. The fierce art-punk minimalism of her early albums gave way to a broader sonic and emotional landscape with her 1995 commercial breakthrough, To Give You My Love (Island). And since then, sheís imposed few limitations on her sound and scope. Harvey has composed for soundtracks, sung duets with Nick Cave and her multi-instrumentalist collaborator John Parish, and appeared on most of Desert Sessions, Vol. 9Ė10, a side project for eccentric Queens of the Stone Age brain Josh Homme. Thereíve also been two more PJ Harvey albums, 1998ís graceful, textured Is This Desire? (Island) and 2000ís Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (Island), the latter a collection of songs inspired by a stay in New York City that seems an essay about her own search for emotional balance. Storiesí "This is Love" and "Horses in My Dreams" play out as if theyíd been shot straight from her heart. And whether they really are isnít anywhere near as important as whether we believe they are.

Now, thereís another PJ Harvey disc, the just-released Uh Huh Her (Island/Def Jam). Itís the first time in a decade that Polly Jean hasnít taken a musical step forward, but that doesnít matter. The albumís 13 songs hinge entirely on her strength as a writer and performer ó her ability to convince us that she means it, man. Uh Huh Her is a skidding first-person ride through the fallout and recovery from a shattered romance. And Harveyís lyrics slice through a hide of anger, confusion, torment, and simmering resentment to reveal the tender, wounded meat of the matter at every turn.

These new songs have stripped-down garage-rock-style arrangements with immediacy built for the stage. A handful of them exploded to life in Manhattan a week ago Wednesday when Polly Jean and her trio played the tiny "big" room of the Knitting Factory to mark Uh Huh Herís release. Rather than airing all the new material, the concert drew on her history, calling up tunes dating as far back as the punk-pop "Dress" from Dry. Everything had teeth, and the rawest pieces from her studio catalogue simply grew sharper, longer ones. Storiesí "Big Exit" was a burst of ferocity: guitarist Josh Klinghoffer flailing at his instrument and leaning into his amps to make them moan and whine with feedback between chords, Lurch-tall bassist Dingo slamming out a single-minded low-end growl, and drummer Rob Ellis, whoís worked with Polly Jean since her first PJ Harvey band line-up, bashing away.

Only Polly Jean and Ellis, with help from the creative recording engineer who calls himself Head, were involved in making Uh Huh Her, but the current PJ Harvey is a flexible live group. Klinghoffer sometimes played drums while Ellis stepped to the keyboards, which Dingo also manned occasionally. Ellis also took a turn at bass, and guitars were passed around like bongs in a Cheech & Chong movie. A plastic í60s relic Airline in a dropped tuning, an old Gibson Firebird in standard, Fenders, and other mongrel brands in various tunings zipped among Klinghoffer, Polly Jean, and their guitar tech after almost every song. Although that prevented smooth segues, it did ensure a variety of tones from the stage. But what kept the concert exciting was Polly Jeanís dynamic vocal performance and the energy level, which held the focus of the tight-packed fans even as the blend of the Knitting Factoryís dimensions and the loud stage volumes of the amplifiers made a mess of the lyrics or turned the whole mix into an aural tumbleweed.

If Uh Huh Her has a signature sound other than Polly Jeanís wickedly flexible voice, which jumps from shriek to croon to sultry purr at whim, itís the muddy churn of low-tuned guitars and fuzzy distorted bass ó the sonic equivalent of the hard pit that sits in the stomach of anybody going through the barbed-wire side of a break-up. And moments after Polly Jean took the Knitting Factory stage, she and her band started running through those mud fields with "Uh Huh Her." That tune is not on the album, which at 41 minutes could easily hold it. But the numberís chorus tag, "Donít marry uh huh her," puts a subtly different spin on the discís other songs by raising the specter of jealousy. As Uh Huh Her begins, with the vilifying "The Life and Death of Mr. Badmouth," itís not exactly clear what shattered the relationship. And given the absence of preconceptions, everything that follows has a little more of an emotional edge.

Nothing could be edgier than "Who the Fuck," which would be a great single if one could say "fuck" on the radio a couple dozen times in a little over two minutes. It sparked the Knitting Factory audience even more than "Down by the Water" and "To Bring You My Love," Harveyís best-known songs, almost a week before Uh Huh Herís release. Likely people had been to www.pjharvey.net, where a playful, frantic video for the tune is available. And the tiny Harvey, wearing a little strapless dress bearing her own image from back in the Dry days, with pulled-back hair and combat boots, hands pressed against her cheeks like the man in Edvard Munchís The Scream, flung herself around the stage, shrilly belting, "Iím not like other girls/You canít straighten my curls/You suck/Who the fuck/Do you think you are?"

Thatís a hell of a kiss-off and a bold self-assertion. Built on sputtering stop/start guitar, a cresting bass line, and general caterwauling, "Who the Fuck" recalls the glory days of Manhattanís art-punk/no-wave scene. It would have fit perfectly in a 1978 performance by Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, whose compilation Everything (Atavistic) is a must for fans of Polly Jeanís hard-edged work.

Uh Huh Her ricochets from bursts of such anger to moments of attempted reconciliation to the self-loathing and isolation that can come in a break-up, all perfectly essayed in the strident, twitchy "Cat on a Wall" and "No Child of Mine." Four tunes from the finish, we know the heroine is starting to see the light again by "Itís You," which sets her struggle to regain her sense of identity to electric piano and a low-tuned guitar that build along with her resolve. Finally, after the melodic, lightly strummed instrumental "The End," she emerges from her personal trauma to take stock in "The Desperate Kingdom of Love" and "The Darker Days of Him & Me." "Oh love, you were a sickly child/And how the wind knocked you down," Polly Jean sings, perhaps reflecting on the fragile emotional balance of every human being. Yet thereís a need to go on and stay cautiously hopeful, too, as she sings, "Put on your spurs/Swagger around/In the desperate kingdom of love." The album closes as gently as an autoharp, acoustic guitar and drums ringing under her weary summation: "Promises, promises/Iím feeling burned/You taught me a lesson/I didnít want to learn/Iíll pick up the pieces/Carry on somehow/Tape the broken parts together/Limp this love around."

Polly Jean Harvey seems too tough and resourceful to be a limper. Too energized, as well. But if the reopening alternative-rock umbrella needs an experienced role model who can symbolize its sonic flexibility, durability, melodic virtues, and smart emotional core, sheíll do.

Issue Date: June 11 - 17, 2004
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